Tuesday, January 8, 2019

HANK KETCHAM - IN THE ABSTRACT





A few years back I was at a gathering for art dealers at a friend’s house and was glancing through one of their portfolios, when I came across a Dennis the Menace drawing by Hank Ketcham. “You do realize this is the best art in the book”, I commented. The owner looked at me trying to decide if I was kidding, or just that much of an idiot. 

There was some pretty fair talent in his book; probably some Romita Jr, Buscema, Perez, Bryne, Gil Kane and others who I truly admired. But I would stand by my assessment. Don’t be fooled by the simply cartoon style. When your start to examine what an amazing draftsman Ketcham was, the acting of his characters, the composition, and most importantly his abstract designs with the wonderful spotting of texture and blacks, I don’t think any of those gentlemen would have thought they were being unduly criticized. 









Hank Ketcham started taking drawing seriously at the tender age of six, when he got him first drawing lesson from a friend of family who was a commercial artist. He immediately began to spend all his spare time tracing his favorite cartoon characters and developing his own approach to the drawing. And he quickly decided at that young age that he wanted to grown up and be a cartoonist.

Throughout his high school days he edited and drew not only for his school paper, but also did his own weekly circular for the neighborhood. And he also discovered animation and became a devoted fan.  Hank had started taking classes at the University of Washington when he read about Walt Disney looking for artists after the success of his Snow White animated feature. Taking what meager savings he had, the brash young man soon became a college dropout and headed south for the glamorous world of Hollywood.








Initially rejected by Disney,  Ketcham supported himself with the help of relatives and various odd jobs until another break came his way: Walter Lantz was looking for talent to work at his studio drawing Andy Panda and friends. While Hank honed his craft at the Lantz studio, one of the job perks was being able to walk around the Universal Studios backlot, occasionally catching a glimpse of W.C. Fields, Edgar Bergen Deanna Durben,  and many others. 

It wasn’t long before he was called back to the disney studios where he spent the next several years working on Pinocchio, Bambi, Fantasia and Wind in the Willows. And he was working and socializing with the like of Ward Kimball, Fred Moore, Walt Kelly, Virgil Partch and Richard Shaw. In our modern era, there are no shortage of great schools of higher learning where you earn a degree in cartooning and animation, but in those days, Ketcham was getting the best education possible for his career and in the only way possible: by getting on the job experience. 

Things were going so well when WWII erupted for America with Pearl Harbor, and Hank was soon in a sailor’s uniform. However, once his graphic skills and background was discovered, he was quickly plucked from the typing pool to work on designing an animated film to promote the US Navy. The only combat he saw during the war years was arguing with the brass and an occasional co-worker about which direction a project might be headed. He also started selling gag cartoons to any number of publications as a freelancer during this time, including the popular Half Hitch  (based on his own Navy experience) as a regular feature for The Saturday Evening Post. 



When the war ended, Ketcham’s freelance success as a cartoonist convinced him not to return to working at Disney in California, but instead to try his hand at the other end of the country in NYC. He settled in Westport,Connectictt with his recent bride Alice and their new arrival, Dennis. His neighbors were the cream of hall of fame illustrators, from Robert Fawcett, Austin Briggs, Noel Sickles, Norman Rockwell,etc. Not only was he socializing with all this talent, he was soaking up whatever instruction they could give him. Consequently, his  cartoons  had a quality and substance far beyond the simplicity you saw at first glance.

And at home, the young son also was bringing dramatic changes, as he inspired Ketcham’s signature cartoon feature: Dennis the Menace. The strip’s success was immediate, and within a couple of years, both fame and fortune were a normal part of the Ketcham’s home. Unfortunately, while Hank’s life was a dream come true, both his wife and son became victims of the success. Alice died of a drug overdose about the time she was forty, and Dennis was beset with behavioral problems. At some point in his early adult hood, he and his father became estranged and rarely communicated, except Hank bitterly commented, “when he needed cash.” It’s unfortunate that two of Ketcham’s idols,( and eventually good friends), Rockwell and Bing Crosby, were also men who were universally admired, but had severe family problems. 







As the strip skyrocketed with it’s success, Ketcham moved to Carmel, California where he worked for a number of years and established a base. In later years, he would spend several years traveling the world, settling in Geneva for several years after remarrying; he eventually returning to northern California.  He continued to work on Dennis until 1994, when he retired and took up oil and watercolor painting which he continued to do until his death on 2001. One of my proud possessions is a pencil drawing along with a note he sent me in response to some of my own work. 

So take a look at a few of the examples of Hank Ketcham’s  work. While they are very simple drawings, notice they the draftsmanship and perspective are impeccable. Were you to draw any of these frames up as realistic illustrations, there would be very little you would have to do to add to or correct the drawing. Then look at the characters themselves with there acting and expressions. While the figures themselves are stylized, if you were shooting reference to do them realistically, you would have to give your models very little direction. It’s all there. The same can be said of the compositions. While there are simplified to a few shapes and lines, a Rockwell or a Fawcett would be adding little to them if he were doing an illustration for Post or Colliers. 

But what really takes the work to another level is the abstract design that Ketcham creates in every frame. The way that the blacks are spotted, the negative shapes in the frames themselves, and intricate use of texture have all be created by a master. Look at the way he creates dappled shadows from sunlight filtering through trees on his characters. Notice the stark lighting often used to emphasize a story point. Each and every one has been painstakingly created with a great deal of thought. There is a magic in the work that defies examination. I guess you just have to read and enjoy Dennis as one of the hallmarks of  comic strip art. 







Thursday, August 9, 2018

FRIENDS OF INFLUENCE Pt. 3


“I want to thank you, thank you for being my friend.”  Andrew Gold

(Sisterhood cover with my pencils. Christy's late husband Peter Ledger painted the figure and background in the main image.)

Shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 1985, I began looking for freelance work in the field of animation. Not only was Christy Marx a great help in giving me leads and suggestions on who to talk to, but I after attending a meeting of CAPS  (an organization of cartoonists that met once a month) I suddenly found I had a lot of doors opened to me. The animation industry had a healthy respect for artists who worked in comics, and were usually familiar with your work.

At the time I was being forced out of Marvel comics by the current editor, so moving into the better paying field of animation was pretty much a no-brainer. When I was living in Battle Creek, the anxiety always was if I working in comics, where could I work. Once I was in LA, the question switched to how do I get out of comics so I can move into other areas. It certainly gave you a lot more bargaining power when dealing with editors and directors. 
   
(Frank Paur with two of his drawings below.)



(Larry Houston and a couple examples of his comics and animation work.)



Strangely enough, I went from working at Marvel Comics to working at Marvel Animation, doing character designs and storyboards. The adaptation experience was easy enough, and aided by any number of artist friends. Two of folks who were most helpful were Larry Houston (whom I’ve always referred to as the Jack Kirby of animation storyboards) and a young Frank Parr, who I shared offices with more than once over the years. Both of them were a great source of education about the differences between the static images of comics and the illusion of movement in film. 
And I might also mention that I was continually meeting or working with the likes of Alex Toth, Jack Kirby, Moebius, Russ Heath, Jesse Santos and Alex Nino. 

(Alex Toth, one king drawing another king... from our animation days at Bionic Six.)


Jack Kirby

Russ Heath

Moebius

Jesse Santos

Alex Nino

As will happen, after a couple of years, animation went through a very slow period. Howard Chaykin had recently moved to LA, and he approached me about the possibility of getting studio space and working together on a run of American Flagg. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance. Howard was a master of design and storytelling, and an accomplished illustrator. He taught me how to me bring my work to a new level of finish. We used a paper called Craftift that essentially added tones so that the effect was much more three dimensional. After poring through his copies of the Famous Illustrator course, I quickly bought my own copies and started studying them. It wasn't difficult to see that all the cartoonists I had admired like Toth, and Kubert and Starr, were all tremendously influenced by these illustrators. 

Chaykin illustration for Flagg.

(Crafttint boards for Flagg. I pencilled and Howard inked and added the tones. He often stepped in on the early issues and added his touches to the art.And Richard Ory supplied the amazing backgrounds.)



(Early Chaykin ...Dominic Fortune. Yes, he liked Alex Toth.)

Over the several years we had the place, my studio mates were Steve Mitchell, Sean McManus, Richard Ory, Don Cameron, Roy Burdine and Scott Hemming to name a few. It was great environment where I started expanding as a painter and learning more about color. While Howard moved on to writing for TV, he taught me the most valuable lesson: better to be a first rate Mike Vosburg, than a second rate anyone else. And he also recommended me for the job of drawing all the faux comic book covers for the Tales From the Crypt TV series, which was my first job where I was doing a comic book style but producing illustration. And it started me working in film.



Steve Mitchell inks

Sean McManus

Don Cameron


One of the artists I had run into at CAPS was William Stout, who hosted an open life drawing workshop every Sunday morning. I had been pursuing this discipline for a while, but it soon became a routine I’ve now followed for 25 years. Yes, those hundreds (thousands) of hours drawing the figure from life do make a difference in your work. And often I was sitting next to the likes of Dan Gouzee, Rod Dryden, Peter Brook, James Goodrich, Terry Gordon,Dave Glover and so many other talented professionals. The conversation is always scintillating, and you are always being introduced to new artists and new approaches

Life drawing by Bill...photo below of him at his studio where we all draw.




Dan Gouzee

Rod Dryden

(L. to r.  Roy Smith, Zahra, me, Denis Woodyard, Tom Nelson.)

One of the first folks I met in animation who has stayed a very close friend over the years was Zahra Dowlatabadi, who was our art department assistant on Bionic Six. That roll was quickly reversed as she soon moved on to producing and has been very successful.  When I was looking for work she introduced me to her friend, Catherine Winder, who hired me to work at HBO animation, certainly the best job I ever had in the field. (She and Zahra have co-written the ultimate handbook on the process called  Producing Animation)  Catherine was the best boss you could ever ask for. And the folks I worked with at HBO still have regular reunions…something unheard of in the profession.

The HBO Animation Crew. In front at the right is Eric Radomski and Catherine Winder. I am behind them in the second row (I was the old man of the crew). Tom and Jen are in the upper left.)

One of the ironies of my career is that when I was young and not very good, work was never hard to find. As I acquired skill and taste, that all changed. For example, after I “won” an Emmy working on HBO’s Spawn, I discovered it was actually a retirement gift from animation;  there were very few  action adventure shows. Likewise, as my comic book style became more realistic, editors were less receptive at that time. After leaving HBO, work was so slow I seriously starting thinking about a different profession. I happened to run into Trevor Goring at a comic con in Pasadena who suggested I drop off a portfolio where he was working on a new Narnia movie. It seemed like a slim chance, but I followed his advice and thought that would be the end of it. A couple months later they called me in where I met Andrew Adamson who hired me immediately and I spent the next five years working on three films and traveling the world. Another serendipitous twist of fate.
Trevor Goring with some examples of his work.




Tevor is a transplanted Brit who at one time had his own ad agency in the UK and also worked in the comics field there on such books as 2000 ad. When he immigrated to the US he started working doing ad boards and in live action films. He is an amazing talent- a first class storyteller, draftsman and graphic designer.  One glance at his IMDB page and you wonder if there is any film project in the past thirty years he hasn’t work on. He recommended me for the first Narnia film, and I returned the favor on Voyage of the Dawntreader.
Tom Nelson character sketches and boards.






The switch to working on live action films came easily to me, though I was a bit daunted at first. Andrew Adamson liked the fact that I also understood animation and asked if there was anyone else in that field I might recommend. Tom Nelson was one of the HBO crew and I quickly sang his praises. Like myself, through trepidatious at first, Tom quickly adapted and animation lost one of it’s finest as Mr. Nelson has continued working on blockbuster after blockbuster  super hero epic such as Thor, The Avengers,etc.. We also gave Tom the nickname “Mr. Wizard” because of his savvy tech skills. He has brought me kicking and screaming into the 21st century with new technology many a time. (Tom, who met her while sharing an office with me at HBO,  is also married to Jennifer Yuh of Kung Fu Panda fame. Don’t miss Jen’s live action directorial debut The Darkest Minds in cinemas now.)


Tom, Jen, Zahra, my wife Annie, Catherine and myself. 


The truth is, you never make it alone in any profession. While it’s always necessary to do all the hard work to prepare for when your lucky break comes along, it’s usually friends who are supplying the connection to that step forward. And when things are slow, the good ones are always there to keep your spirits up. Friends remember you…and if you’ve screwed them they remember that too. More that just as a source of helping you find your next job, friends are there for the camaraderie, and to enhance your life with their friendship. As my late friend Leonard Starr told me: “All we have is each other.”